It’s just two days to Christmas. The tree is up, the Nativity scenes and decorations are out, and the shopping is (mostly) finished.
Now, we wait.
In an ancient and wonderful Christian tradition, this is the season of “Advent”: a planned four weeks of waiting for the birth of Christ. The passage of time is marked in various ways, most often by daily Advent calendars or by weekly candles in an Advent wreath. As the weeks proceed, the light recedes and the days grow shorter and shorter.
Then, during the darkest week, the light emerges: the Christ child is born.
Whatever your religious tradition, the themes are familiar. The story is one of hope, redemption, and peace. All wrapped up in the image of a little baby, born into humble circumstances.
Our modern world is full of instant stimuli, where everything is presented “your way, right away,” and folks cannot disconnect from devices and technology. Advent provides an antidote to the vagaries of modern life—a small way to reclaim some of our peace and be reminded of our shared humanity. For me, this is a time of year to find a quiet corner and a warm cup of coffee and read, write, or just think.
We live in the greatest country ever conceived of by humankind. While there are many problems in our state, life is better here than in most of the world. And even in Illinois, the decades of corruption and decay have been laid bare for the people. The seeds of reform and renewal are slowly germinating, despite the fits and starts. (The General Assembly even came together to release funds so that local governments will have enough road salt on hand for the snowy and icy weather to come.) Next year will bring great political fights, from a wide-open presidential contest to numerous state and local elections, along with continued struggle in the Illinois legislature.
But for now, we wait.
As we proceed through this holiday time, please know of my deepest wishes for health, happiness, and blessing for you and yours. I’m thankful and honored to represent you.
A little over two weeks ago, the nation watched the video of a police officer firing 16 shots at Laquan McDonald, a young black man, armed with only a small knife and walking away from police. Two of those shots were fired at McDonald while he was standing, with the remainder ripping through his body after he fell to the pavement.
None of the at least five other officers on the scene attempted medical assistance for the young man as he lay on the ground. Witnesses were “shooed away” from the scene, without their contact information even being taken. Numerous other police vehicles were on scene, but none of their dashboard video or audio has been released—and may have been destroyed. Even the security video from the local Burger King, which officers demanded password access to in the aftermath of the shooting, has a void in its footage during the critical time of the shooting.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel was in the midst of a tough re-election campaign in October 2014, desperately needing the support of the City Council’s Black Caucus to defeat his Latino challenger. As details slowly emerged from whistleblowers about the shooting, the City steadfastly refused to release the video. Once the Mayor—and those who supported him—were clear of the April 2015 election, the City Council agreed to pay the family of the young man $5 million, with the further caveat that the video not be released. But an independent reporter sued and, over a year after the shooting, finally forced the City to release the footage.
This video would’ve made national news, whenever it was released. But for the people of Chicago and of Illinois, it’s not merely the killing but the cover-up that has shaken us. This incident has laid bare how far our elected officials will go to protect the established political power structure in our state.
State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez was informed of the relevant facts and had the video much earlier, but decided to charge the officer involved 13 months later, only after she knew that the video would be released. Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office dragged its feet on enforcing the Freedom of Information Act against the City of Chicago to release of the video, even allowing the City to violate Illinois law in thwarting the legal review process under the Act. And when Madigan’s office did finally issue a decision, it was issued as “non-binding,” which against the City of Chicago, meant the decision was not worth the paper it was printed on.
Mayor Emanuel has now fired the police superintendent and is trying to focus the attention on State’s Attorney Alvarez, who is up for re-election in March 2016. However, it’s reported that Speaker Mike Madigan will support Alvarez in the next election, so as to shore up his Latino and suburban Cook County vote.
In any other structure, whether public or private, you’d fire every single person involved and start over. But not in Illinois. At least not up to this point in Illinois.
Fortunately, the people are outraged. The press is on the attack. Some have urged “calm” in the wake of this video, but that’s not quite right. Peaceful, yes, but we should not be “calm.” Any person with a conscience and a sense of right and wrong should be furious about this entire situation: both the tragic unnecessary killing of a human being, and the deep corruption of a political system to the point that people will do anything to protect their power and elective offices.
Moreover, this outrage isn’t—and shouldn’t be—limited to folks in the City of Chicago. The same people who covered up the killing of Laquan McDonald hold vast influence over our entire state and its politics. The way forward from here will not be driven by calm, but by that special sort of righteous anger that drives positive change: the type of feeling and thought which throughout history has inspired political movements and revivals.
We have a long road ahead to turn Illinois around, but it starts with a people who are disgusted by the status quo and ready for a new way.
With the combatants at a stalemate in Springfield, we’ve been back in the district for most of the past few weeks. I’ve used the time at home to give talks and meet with folks. Many of the groups are young people—schools, churches, Boy Scouts, etc.—so I decided that my primary message during these talks would be that: “you were put on this earth for a purpose, and you’ll be happiest if you find yours and live it.” Another way to put it is that: “each of you has a path to trod, and if you try to stay on your path and out of the brush, life is a lot more fulfilling—not to mention easier!”
One of those groups was a combined meeting of the 7th & 8th grade religious education classes at Sacred Heart Parish. They were an engaged, sharp, and inquisitive group of kids. We talked about a range of topics, from “how the sausage is made” in the Capitol, to how faith impacts one’s public life, to what I wanted to do with my life when I was their age. As for being a state representative, I must have made that sound interesting, because at the end, they all wanted to come to Springfield and serve as my “page for a day” on the House floor.
Afterward, the kids also took “selfie” pictures with me—I’m told you can find them on Instagram, which is apparently all the rage now. (I still resist going on Twitter, so Instagram is a real stretch.)
It’s times like these that a guy starts to feel like his father or grandfather, dispensing unsolicited advice to children and wondering about their newfangled web sites.
With Thanksgiving this week, it’s a good time to give thanks for blessed moments like these, moments of genuine interaction with others. These kids weren’t worried about terrorist attacks, refugee crises, and the crushing effect of government debt spreading across the globe. They were fully engaged in the moment and the wonder of a new experience. Thank God for that.
Thank God that we live in the United States of America, the greatest and most generous nation in the history of humanity. Our country is certainly not perfect, but the bounty we enjoy here is unprecedented. And we’re a lot closer to perfect than most.
Even in our home state of Illinois, which is in the grip of the forces of corruption, mismanagement, and self-dealing, there are plenty of people and institutions of character and enterprise fighting to free her and bring her back to prominence. Thanks be to God!
Hold your family and friends close this week. Have a few more of those memorable moments. Give some unsolicited advice to nearby children. And thank God for all of it.
“No one in this body thinks the Senate is laser-focused on the most pressing issues facing the nation. No one. Some of us lament this fact; some are angered by it; many are resigned to it; some try to dispassionately explain how they think it came to be. But no one disputes it.”
Those were the words this past week of U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, during his first speech on the Senate floor. By Senate tradition, a new member does not speak on the floor for the first year after election. While that tradition has not been followed as much lately, Sen. Sasse pledged during his campaign to respect it. (It’s not that he has nothing to say, either: Sasse graduated Harvard, has a Ph.D in History from Yale, and at age 43 was the youngest university president in the country before his election.) Instead of talking, Sasse listened. He took these past twelve months to observe the proceedings, engage and interview other senators privately, and focus on his committee work. He then took the opportunity of his first speech to make an honest assessment of the problems plaguing the “World’s Greatest Deliberative Body,” the United States Senate.
I was elected the same day as Sen. Sasse, just over one year ago. Listening to him decry the partisanship and “lazy politician speech” that has gripped the U.S. Senate, he just as easily could have been describing the Illinois House.
Here’s the thing about Sen. Sasse: he ran for office as a conservative. He wasn’t unclear about his principles or his willingness to advocate for them. But when he arrived in the Senate, he chose the desk of the late-Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, of New York. Sen. Moynihan was known as a strong liberal, but he was a deep thinker—one who would question every assumption and bring scientific data to bear on every issue. Sen. Moynihan went where he believed the facts and logic led, not where the political pundits pointed.
The conservative Sen. Sasse then laid out a compelling bipartisan vision that Sen. Moynihan, the liberal lion, would have endorsed:
“This is not a call for less fighting—but for more meaningful fighting. This is a call for bringing our A-game to the debates on the biggest issues here, with less regard for the 24-month election cycle and the 24-hour news cycle.”
There’s much more to the speech, and I was so moved by it that I’ve linked to the video and text on my website at votebreen.com/sasse. I can’t recall a clearer, more thoughtful assessment of why our U.S. Senate and our politics generally are so broken in America today. Every high schooler should watch or read this speech as part of their civics education. Every American of voting age will receive benefit from this speech, as well.
While Sen. Sasse’s assessment of the problems plaguing our Senate and our political institutions is distressing, his message is one of hope, what he calls “not naïve idealism, but aspirational realism.” Imagine the difference in our political life if elected officials and voters agreed that, “we do not need fewer conviction politicians around here; we need more of them. We do not need more compromising of principles; we need clearer articulation and understanding of competing principles.”
This kind of vigorous robust debate is how the world’s great enterprises—whether businesses, organizations, or government—succeed and flourish in times of crisis. And it’s how we can turn Illinois around, too.
“What is truth?” It’s a question as old as western civilization. But with each passing day, it feels like lies and “spin” are winning in the public arena over truth.
For instance, there’s a new movie in the theaters with the title, “Truth.” Such a title would be fine, except that this alleged “real-life story” was definitively proven to be false. The topic of that particular movie is the CBS 60 Minutes investigative report in 2004 which attacked George W. Bush’s military service. Independent investigations found the story to be fabricated, to the extent that this false report even cost larger-than-life anchor Dan Rather his job.
In our state politics, it’s getting even harder to recognize the truth. Some editorial pages covering Illinois’ budget stalemate talk about how terrible House Speaker Mike Madigan is, while others complain about how unreasonable Governor Bruce Rauner is. And, if you get your news from AFSCME, the primary state worker union, you’re getting regular emails telling you how Gov. Rauner is allegedly trying to put government workers out of house and home.
Even former Gov. Jim Edgar recently claimed that Gov. Rauner was holding the budget “hostage” by pushing for term limits, property tax relief, worker’s compensation reforms, and other items that would invigorate Illinois’ economic climate. Gov. Edgar urged that Gov. Rauner focus on what’s “doable.” That sort of talk sounds reasonable. However, the reality is that our elected officials have been “doing what’s doable” for decades. That sort of get-along, go-along government is the primary reason our state is in such a mess today.
As painful as it may be to admit, both parties helped sow the seeds of this problem. During Gov. Edgar’s administration, a “pension ramp” was adopted, which meant low payments to pensions in the then-near term (the 1990s and 2000s), with huge payments later (in the 2010s, 2020s, and beyond). By putting less money to pensions back then, the politicians had lots more money to spend on their pet projects and special interests. At this point today, most of those politicians are retired and receiving generous pensions, at your expense.
Well, Gov. Rauner wasn’t the governor in the 1990s or 2000s. Speaker Madigan was in place through the whole thing. Madigan negotiated that pension ramp and spent the excess money. Tough decisions on pension reform should have been made back in the 1990s, but the principle of “doing what’s doable” instead resulted in doing whatever Speaker Mike Madigan wanted.
When you read the news about the budget impasse, keep in mind that many of these supposed “non-budget” reforms are actually necessary to balance the budget. After decades of waste and abuse in Illinois government, it makes sense that substantial reforms would be required. For instance, the Governor has proposed reducing the state funds that are sent to municipalities, but he’s done so while also proposing to roll back state mandates that make local government too expensive. In this instance, cost savings from taking away those mandates has the potential to even out the reduced fund transfers from the state. That way, there’s no loss of services at the local level.
We started with a question about truth. Truth isn’t in the news reports and the prepared statements taken at face value. Truth in politics instead is found by following the money and the personal and special interests of the players. With a bit of work, we can see that truth with clear vision and hold our elected officials to account.
To say that folks are angry and frustrated with politics right now would be an understatement. In fact, it seems that the entire country is fed up with politicians and the political establishment. You can see it in the rise of “outsider” candidates in the presidential primaries. From Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders, majorities of Americans want a change from the status quo—and they don't care how outrageous the statements or positions of a particular candidate may be, as long as they will upend the established order.
Here in Illinois, we are no strangers to anger and frustration at the political process. I recently gave a talk to a bipartisan group at the Beacon Hill senior community in Lombard. We talked about the lack of an Illinois budget, about House Speaker Michael Madigan, and about Governor Bruce Rauner.
While folks were almost unanimous in their dislike of Speaker Madigan, there were divisions on Governor Rauner. To that end, I wanted to see what the folks at Beacon Hill thought of recent poll results I’d seen relating to the Governor. The poll stated that the Governor’s approval rating is around 45 percent of Illinoisans, and his disapproval rating is around 40 percent. (Normally, an incumbent with an approval rate below 50 percent is considered “in danger.”)
However, that poll also had tested another question—whether folks agreed or disagreed with the statement, “Bruce Rauner is trying to shake things up in Springfield, but the career politicians are standing in his way.” The poll results were 71 percent yes to just 21 percent no.
I asked the seniors at Beacon Hill whether they agreed with that statement or not. Nearly every head in the room nodded in approval. In fact, not a single person in that room full of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents disagreed.
To me, that result speaks louder than the standard approval/disapproval numbers that pundits watch. In this environment of anger and frustration, the public will support an authentic elected leader every time against a status quo politician.
We’ve seen examples locally, too, most recently with the housecleaning at College of DuPage, where the voters chose all new leaders for that school board, even though all of those candidates had little or no prior elected experience.
As we enter day 106 of our Illinois budget impasse and government “shutdown,” the lines are clearly drawn between reform and “the way it’s always been.” But, unlike previous years, the people of this State have had enough—they’re sick and tired of the same old, same old.
That’s why I tell folks that I’m more hopeful today about the future of this State than I’ve been in decades. We all know that our elected officials failed us, by not dealing with our structural financial issues of debt, pensions, health care, and the like, many years ago. But, the upside is that fight for the heart and soul of Illinois is raging, right here, right now.
Not only is that debate finally happening, but it’s happening under the bright spotlight of public scrutiny.
I am confident that, at the end of this battle over budget and reform, the people of Illinois will know exactly where their political leaders stand. My great hope is, at that point, the people of this State, through their sacred right to vote, will then act accordingly.
As the effects of Illinois’ budget impasse begin to impact vehicle owners, State Representative Peter Breen (R-Lombard) filed legislation today to protect them from late fees that could result from the Secretary of State’s recent decision to suspend the mailing of reminders for vehicle registration renewals. Current Illinois law does not allow the Secretary of State to legally waive these late fees.
“The suspension of this important service is the latest fallout from the lack of an approved Fiscal Year 2016 budget in Illinois,” said Breen. “Secretary of State Jesse White has made a decision that will allow the functions of his office to continue for a few more months, and I respect his decision. However, motorists rely on those notices and should not be penalized for the legislature’s inability to get a budget approved.”
HB4306 would amend the Illinois Vehicle Code by prohibiting the Secretary of State from imposing a delinquent registration renewal fee when the registered owner of the vehicle has not been provided with either a postage mail or an emailed notice of the date the registration expires. The bill also provides that reminder notices will state that a $20 delinquent fee may be imposed if a vehicle owner does not renew the registration within one month of the expiration.
When making the announcement about suspending the mailings, Secretary White encouraged vehicle owners to utilize a website link to sign up for an email reminder that a vehicle registration is about to expire. “While I believe many people will take advantage of the email notification alternative, I worry about seniors and others who do not have routine access to computers and email,” said Breen. “People who don’t use email are going to fall through the cracks and face unfair fees through no fault of their own. HB4306 would provide protective measures during this unprecedented time in Illinois history.” Breen is hoping his bill will be debated and voted upon during the upcoming veto session.
To sign up for email reminders, go to www.cyberdriveillinois.com. For those without email or internet access, you can renew either in person at your local Secretary of State office or through the mail. For both options, you need to identify your pin number, which is on your registration card. If mailing, you will need to include your license plate type and number and your renewal check or money order, and mail to Secretary of State, Vehicle Services Department, 501 S. 2nd St, Room 011, Springfield, IL. 62756. The cost of the fee is the same as last year.
This past week, Pope Francis captured the attention of our nation. His visit brought tears to the eyes of otherwise-cynical TV commentators. The Speaker of the U.S. House, John Boehner, even decided to step down in the wake of the first-ever address by the Roman Pontiff to Congress. We haven’t seen a papal reception like this since Pope John Paul II visited in 1979.
In the wall-to-wall TV coverage of Pope Francis, the reporters discussed his speeches in detail, which covered a range of subjects, from the environment to religious liberty, from immigration to the protection of life. But the Pope didn’t lay out a political program – what he shared with our nation is a set of guiding principles. While we are deluged every day by various “programs,” “solutions,” and “four-point plans,” we don’t hear a lot of talk about principles in our political discussions. Not so with the Pope.
If you look past the political commentators, you see that the real focus of the Pope’s message was on the virtues of faith, hope and love. In his final homily at Sunday Mass in Philadelphia, Pope Francis summed it up in his words on the family. What touched me was when he talked about the little ways we show love in our family. He spoke of how these gestures of love begin in the family and radiate out into the world and those we encounter:
“How are we trying to live this way in our homes, in our societies? What kind of world do we want to leave to our children? We cannot answer these questions alone, by ourselves. It is the Spirit who challenges us to respond as part of the great human family. Our common house can no longer tolerate sterile divisions.”
These words can be applied to many different scenarios and issues – to what happens in your home and mine. How do we treat each other? Are we truly doing unto others as we would have them do unto us? The Golden Rule is simple, but certainly not easy to follow!
Despite the media reports, Pope Francis is not preaching a different Gospel than that preached by Pope Benedict or Pope John Paul II. For instance, Pope John Paul II regularly spoke of “solidarity” and the common bonds of fraternity and responsibility between all peoples.
Looking specifically at Pope Francis’ words, I ask myself how the Illinois General Assembly is doing. What kind of state are we leaving for our children? On the one hand, are we truly caring for the most vulnerable when our funding for the developmentally disabled is the worst in the country? Yet we rack up debt because we refuse measures like pension reform – and refuse to even discuss how to pay for government pensions. Is it right to put off paying for these obligations and instead force our children and grandchildren to pay for them?
The principles that Pope Francis has shared are timeless, and if we can agree on the principles, they can guide our consideration of specific policies to improve our common life together. We can look critically at how our government should spend the taxpayer dollars entrusted to it. We can carefully review our laws and legal structures to cut waste and abuse. We can ask whether government policies promote or hurt the family. Then together, we can truly make our state a bit more faithful, a bit more hopeful, and a bit more loving.
My brother-in-law, who lives in our district, is starting his career working in manufacturing, after serving almost a decade in the military. Manufacturing is universally acknowledged as one of the keys to a stable healthy economy. And Illinois has traditionally been the manufacturing hub of the Midwest.
Well, I just saw a statistic that turned my head: for every 3 manufacturing jobs in Illinois, there are 4 state and local government jobs. That’s according to the June 2015 survey from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, which identified 746,700 state and local government workers, compared to 574,200 manufacturing workers.
Manufacturing companies are leaving for greener pastures, in nearby states like Wisconsin and Indiana. Some leave because the laws and regulations are too complicated and obtrusive. Some leave because their property taxes and other taxes are higher than our neighbors. In business, you can either increase your revenue—the number of products sold and the amount you sell them for—or you can decrease your costs to produce and deliver the product—that’s where all the property taxes, income taxes, corporate taxes, fees, lawsuit costs, and state and local regulation costs combine to impact the profit margin. Without profits, you can’t hire folks. Without profits, your business will soon enough go under.
When our manufacturing businesses leave, they take a range of jobs. There are the entry level positions, like the one my brother-in-law and many other young people need to get their start in manufacturing. Then there are those mid-level skilled positions, the types that allow folks to buy homes, support families, and set down deep roots in their communities. And there are also the management and ownership positions to aspire to, for those who have the aptitude and willingness to work hard enough to get into them. Sometimes the management positions become jumping off points for folks to become owners of the particular business—or to go and start their own businesses.
All of this is why losing a business means a lot more than just a fluctuation in some economic numbers. When an Illinois business moves or closes, it’s like a small community scattering or vanishing.
Some in Springfield don’t agree with this assessment. They advocate for the status quo: the status quo that got them elected, the status quo that often provides them additional personal profit. For them, it’s about “getting theirs.” These are the legislators who refuse reform and instead just demand more and more money for government—usually at the expense of folks in DuPage and the collar counties.
Well, we’re tired of paying for their status quo. We’re tired of seeing our neighbors forced out of Illinois because of job loss. We’re tired of kids not being able to find jobs here. We’re tired of being the laughingstock of the country.
The only thing standing in the way of an Illinois turnaround is the status quo in Springfield.
But for the first time in over a decade, the fight is on to upend that status quo. The fight is on to reform government at every level - to change our regulations, to meet the needs of innovative and modern businesses, and to finally reform our broken property tax system.
You’re now seeing the chinks in the armor. Bad bills are being vetoed by the governor—and the status quo legislators are learning that they can’t override the vetoes. In the recent past, these legislators got whatever they wanted, as long as they could cut the right deal with the right people. No more.
As you watch the news coverage of what’s happening in the state capital, watch for these victories, the times where the political establishment can’t get its way. Each time that happens, we’re one step closer to getting the reform we need in Illinois. We’re one step closer to becoming a state where my brother-in-law and those like him can find good-paying jobs, raise healthy and happy families, and build strong communities.